The Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Lecture at Case this week was delivered by Jamaica Kincaid, a 1997 winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Ms Kincaid is known for her perceptive and thought-provoking writing on gardening as a metaphor for life. Her lecture is part of the focus for the Baker Nord Center’s Humanities theme for the current term: The Culture of Green: Nature and the Environment.
Although rather disjointed, Ms. Kincaid’s lecture offered several ideas that were something of a surprise and maybe even shock for this listener.
Reading several verses from Genesis and using the example of how Adam was given the power to name all the plants and animals in the Garden of Eden, Ms. Kincaid discussed the power inherent in the ability to name things.
I had not thought about how, through colonialism as well as through botany, an outsider’s discovery of a native species, people or place confers an unsanctioned power to name the unfamiliar in familiar terms. When the ‘namer’ has a level of world or sector prominence, the names given to what (to the namer) were foreign, become a universally accepted identity that appropriates and dismisses the entire history and meaning of the original/native name. Think “indians.” And so we lose a potential for richness in language and historical and cultural diversity.
The second and really thought-provoking idea came from her answer to a rather out-of place political question about global warming and the need for prominent individuals (such as Ms. Kincaid, suggested the questioner) to be champions for the cause. Taking a long time to compose her response, Ms. Kincaid made the following statements (captured as accurately as I could from her remarks):
“We would have to do something so radical that even the people who will suffer the most will not be able to do what is needed. I do not think we will be able to do what is needed.
People adapt. We caused the catastrophe and we will just adapt to it as long as we can.
People come and go. We are ephemeral. I have a deep feeling that one day we will just go and the earth will survive. “
As I left the lecture with my friends, we speculated on the fatalism in these statements. Did it come from growing up under British colonial rule in Antigua? Do others in less affluent and powerful countries share this sense of fatalism? Are we, in this powerful and too-often arrogant country, fooling ourselves that we, and the rest of the world, can really make a positive difference in halting or reversing global warming?
I don’t have an answer, obviously, but I do have a lot of questions that never occurred to me before.
That’s something, Kathleen. I missed the lecture, but I appreciate your reporting on it. I’ve wondered, too, whether we can rally and turn the tide against the environmental mess we have made. Its inertia is so great, and our divisions so deep. Here’s hoping we get it together.